(E)vac(u)ated Spaces, for Teresa Grimaldi

text to accompany the exhibition, Teresa Grimaldi: The Vacated Works, Quay Arts, Isle of Wight, May 2009

(E)vac(u)ated Spaces, a digression on some terms

Mark Leahy

[This text responds to the exhibition of projects by Teresa Grimaldi  gathered together under the title, The Vacated Works. It digresses in an associative way on a number of phrases or terms. The sections link to each other and accumulate towards a reading of the works, the background to some of them, and to the place of Teresa as a maker within and among those works. She puts the stuff together, she animates the floppy forms of the puppets, she documents and organises the disparate elements that combine to make the bigger picture. Starting with a sense of nothing, of an absence, these notes move through a series of occupations or reanimations towards a mode of organising things so that they are available to an audience. Teresa, in the works assembled, offers a window on aspects of liveliness, of the deadly, of the absent and of the unavoidably present.]

vacuum

A vacuum is a space in which there is a low pressure of gas, i.e. relatively few atoms or molecules in comparison with the surrounding space. A perfect vacuum would contain no atoms or molecules, but this exists only as a concept. The ability to mechanically create a vacuum (or an almost vacuum) was successfully achieved as part of a programme of European empirical investigation through the seventeenth century. Public experiments were conducted where the force of the surrounding air pressing on an evacuated pair of hemispheres was shown to be so strong that draught horses could not pull it apart. Pumping air out of a container was used to demonstrate the necessity of air for life, of oxygen for continuation of a flame, and for the sustaining of breathing and respiration. Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ shows such an experiment, with a number of observers gathered round the demonstration as a cockatoo expires in a glass vacuum bottle.

/the wings beat feebly in silence, contained in the emptied jar, the beak open, the eyes begin to glaze, a secondary glazing, there is almost no motion now, and the observers lean forward, gather round by lamplight watching for the certain, the final absence of motion // the bird used in the service of science, enlightens the watchers in the moment of its going into darkness /

In scenes such as that depicted by Joseph Wright experimentation and testing is carried out in the pursuit of knowledge, and death is a side-effect of this search for answers to the mysteries of life. Wright’s painting and the scene it depicts emerge from a world later occupied by the stories of E. T. A. Hoffman, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. These Gothic narratives depict scientific single-mindedness, and explore the intersection between life and artifice, the lively and the lifeless, the animate and inanimate. The question of where the point of animation lies, where the precise point is between life and death is raised in these fictions. The experiment with the air-pump might demonstrate that it is air or some element of air that sustains life, while in Frankenstein animation comes via electricity or some natural force guided by the Doctor. For the doll-maker in Hoffman’s tale ‘The Sandman’ animation comes via sophisticated clockwork or animatronics, though the story allows for the suggestion of another animating energy, perhaps psychic or spiritual or divine as in the Pygmalion myth.

reanimation

Prior to animation or at the point where the energising force or element is removed, withdrawn, these entities (dolls or puppets or assemblages) revert to being shells or emptied articles. These are the post-animate shells or shrouds or covers that appear in the work of the Surrealists and other early twentieth century artists, the glove in Max Klinger’s series of images that makes a journey through the city almost by its own volition, with intent or motivation; or the glove on the hall table in Andre Breton’s Nadja. These gloves have but moments since been lively, a glove still warm from the hand that filled it, scented still with the secretions of the skin of its wearer. Breton then shows the glove again in a photographic image of a bronze version (functioning as a paperweight), a further (doubled) remove from the living hand, and in its hyper-lifelike resemblance to the ‘real’ glove, it gives the narrator a shudder. Hans Bellmer’s dolls awkwardly posed in their photographic representations might a moment before have been moved, been otherwise arranged, angled and edged into position, or might move the moment we look away, the moment after the camera shutter clicks.

/a shell or structure is emptied out and then refilled, for a new audience, or a new user, as a story might be emptied and refilled (a fairytale, a genre form, a ritual action) Punch & Judy, Riddley Walker, a robot, Hansel & Gretel, Cinderella, The Seal Wife … the puppet shell, the local legend, the metal figure, the edible house, the seal skin are empty, have lost their liveliness or freshness, until the moment of reoccupation, the moment of being brought back to life with a shiver/

In Christian culture one of the most profound moments or images of evacuation and reanimation is the scene of Christ’s resurrection (prefigured by the reanimation of the dead Lazarus). The raising of the body of Christ happens off stage, reported in the discovery of the absence, when the disciples come to the tomb and find it empty; find the evidence of a bodily shell having come back to life. The different gospel accounts all agree on the empty sepulchre but the four of them vary in their details, with John giving the very precise mention of the empty tomb and within it neatly laid the cloths that had wrapped the body:

And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen cloths lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.  John 20: 5-7

These cloths echo the swaddling clothes of the infant Christ, and these remaining evacuated embalming cloths are variously interpreted as evidence of how the resurrection occurred. They survive as relics, as tangible evidence of something having happened. Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space cites incidents of snail shells being placed in Christian burial grounds, where the empty shell echoes Christ’s empty tomb and by analogy the emptied shell of the mortal body. The snail shells operate as signifiers of the earthly body vacated by the animating soul or spirit and remain behind as lifeless evidence of this transcendence.

slack space

In relation to computers and information technology slack space refers to the unused space in a disk cluster. The DOS and Windows file systems use fixed-size clusters. Even if the actual data being stored requires less storage than the cluster size, an entire cluster is reserved for the file. The unused space is called the slack space. The term has been appropriated or reanimated by architects and activists to refer to retail and office space that is not being fully utilised in commercial zones.  

Alterations in economic circumstances (business collapse, poor sales, changes of priority) leave room for alternative occupation, for reanimation by art or not-for-profit projects. In the UK this has affected the number of charity shops in town centres, shops which operate as sites for the redistribution of unwanted or unneeded items of clothing, books, music and other non-biodegradable household goods. So in the high street we see the empty shop space, a space that gets vacated (for whatever reason, insolvency, retirement, or death) only to be reoccupied in some way. This reoccupation may be by another commercial enterprise, or an enterprise that operates in an oblique relationship to the economic structures, the structures that led to the failure of the earlier occupation. Such angled or ‘other’ activity may be in the grey economy or charity sector or in the area of the arts, as these endeavours take up the slack space.

disjecta membra

The phrase disjecta membra originates in the Latin poetry of Horace where he refers to the ‘scattered limbs of the poet’ which are incorporated into another’s work. The reference is to scattered remains that are gathered up into a (re)new(ed) form. Sampling, quotation, homage and other situations of reuse of material echo this gruesome image of revivification.

Sea Lion Woman, a folk-song first recorded in the Southern US in the late 1930s was later recorded by Nina Simone as See Line Woman, another reoccupation of the song, which also moved it away from its possible origins in the Seal Wife folktale. The Nina Simone version has since been sampled for house music and other tracks that gather up samples and riffs to revivify them for a new audience, and sometimes revive interest in the original giving it a new boost in sales and listening. In the Nina Simone version the woman of the title changes her dress several times, through different colours, causing various effects on those around her. This retains the memory of a woman who sheds and shifts her skin, and whose power over the beholder makes them fall for her.

The selkie legends (which have been gathered in Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and also in other areas of fishing and coastal dwelling in Japan, North America) refer to skin shifting women who have human and seal skins and can put on or take off the animal skin. (There exist related tales of swan women who also can put on or remove skins of swan feathers.) A fisherman steals the animal skin, and this means the woman must remain in human form. In each legend the woman finally retrieves her pelt and regains her ‘true’ state and returns to her home in the sea.

Such a putting on and putting off of a skin, a shifting between two states is reflected in puppetry, as the jumbled sticks of a marionette are gathered up and reorganised into a recognisable figure, that moves and gestures ‘like us’; as the limp form of the glove puppet is transformed in the moment of slipping the hand inside, as the puppeteer brings the fabric and papier maché, or wood, or vacuum-formed plastic to animation.

horror vacui

Following Aristotle’s assertion that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’, for many centuries it was believed that no evacuated state would be sustainable as the vacuum would draw a new filling to itself, that it would suck in what was around it to achieve a balance or harmony with its environment. In the seventeenth century it was proved that it was the pressure of the surrounding fluids or substances that pushed towards the vacuum rather than the emptiness pulling something towards it and so the phrase horror vacui shifted from philosophy to medicine and art.

Following a psychologising of the term, to indicate a ‘fear of empty spaces’, horror vacui has also been used to refer to a style of design or art where every surface is occupied, is busy, is covered and coated and layered with detail and information and activity. This may be reflected in the crammed and stuffed and densely packed nature of Captain Hockney’s shop. Here every wall has shelves from floor to ceiling, and every shelf is packed with stuff. And then shelves and cabinets and other furniture occupies the centre of the shop space, filling almost all the floor so that the owner and visitors must move carefully between them, and all this furniture, all its horizontal surfaces are also packed and stacked with things. This as a term has been used to name style of bourgeois interiors of the late nineteenth century, the art and design associated with psychedelia (c.f. The Isle of Wight Festival), and comic or graphic styles such as the Where’s Waldo books. The sense that such a style might be symptomatic or evidence of some obsessive or compulsive behaviour is linked to the hoarding of the Collyer brothers in twentieth century Manhattan, or the art work of persons designated as ‘insane’ such as Richard Dadd or Adolf Wölfli.

/poisoned perfectly by chopped laurel leaves in used jam jars, the openings layered with muslin / butterflies are laid out on sheets for drying, pinned in place, and held in the optimum arrangement for display by strips of thin cloth / labelled and dated, so that they can be presented later on silk covered boards / their fascinating wings fragile tessellations of colour of shimmer in dense and powdery pattern /

tagging

Tagging operates on the Internet and across the World Wide Web as a means of assigning searchable data to objects, files, images, or other materials that are stored, uploaded, or otherwise made available to browsers. Unlike other taxonomic systems, the tagging may operate without prior agreed rules, though there are those who are working towards some levels of standardisation e.g. TEI, the Text Encoding Initiative that has set guidelines for the encoding of digitised materials that are made available on the web. Tagging operates as one aspect of folksonomy across online social networks and sites that share data, files, materials, these include De.lic.ious, Flickr, Facebook and others. Tagging or labelling can be individual and idiosyncratic, depending on how accessible to others the tagger or labeller wishes the database or store or hoard to be.

Captain Hockney’s tags and labels, or ‘tickets’ as he refers to them are individual, they are hand-made with each one being particular, and they are idiosyncratic in the manner in which they draw attention to particular features of the ticketed item. They offer the browser a sense of how the tagger sees the item, and also how the tagger imagines the item to appeal to the browser, the tag or label gives a voice to the object that calls out to the reader, appealing to them to take the thing up, to handle it, to give a new life in a new home. The ticket reaches out to the reader, into her or his world, to suggest why they might wish to acquire them. The tickets give voice to silent things, they make them speak, and in this moment of prosopopeia an uncanny animation is effected.

/the object (the forgotten or abandoned or cast off or jettisoned or unwanted) is relocated, reassigned by the tag, the label, it is given a new function or new status as it has been stripped of its belonging in being cast away, being outgrown, being left behind (the adder’s shed skin) (the hermits crab’s last carapace) (the spade or bucket on the beach at the end of a summer day) (the favourite toy now of no interest) (a grandmother’s best china cabinet that doesn’t fit in the smaller accommodation) // some of these cast offs are gathered up into new uses, or offered for collection, re-framed, re-named, re-housed; and the labels suggest new addresses for them, calling to the reader to accommodate them, to adopt them, to take them home/